In the summer of 1991, Pam Reynolds learned she had a life-threatening bulge in an artery in her brain. Neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler, director of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, told the 35-year-old Atlanta mother of three that in order to operate he would be required to stop her heart. During that time her brain function would surely cease. By all clinical measures, she would be dead for up to at least up to one hour.
While Reynolds was under anesthesia, leads from a machine that emitted a clicking sound were plugged into her ears to gauge her brainstem function (the brainstem plays a part in controlling hearing as well as other involuntary activities). Additional instruments tracked heartbeat, breathing, temperature and other vital signs. Her limbs were restrained; her eyes were lubricated and then taped shut.
As Dr. Spetzler powered up the surgical saw to open the patient’s skull, something occurred that never registered on any of the sophisticated monitoring devices. Reynolds felt herself “pop” out of her body. From a vantage point lust above Dr. Spetzler’s shoulders, she looked down on the [her] operation. She “saw” Spetzler holding something that resembled an electric toothbrush. A female voice complain-ed that the patient’s blood vessels were too small. It appeared to Reynolds that they were about to operate on her groin. That couldn’t be right, she thought. This is brain surgery. Reynolds then assumed that whatever they were doing inside her skull had triggered a hallucination.
But even though her eyes and ears were effectively sealed shut, what she perceived was actually happening. The surgical saw did resemble an electric toothbrush. Surgeons were, indeed, working on her groin: Catheters had to be threaded up to her heart to connect to a heart-lung machine. Dr. Spetzler gave the order to bring Reynolds to “standstill” draining the blood from her body. By every reading of every instrument, life left Reynolds’s body. And she found herself traveling down a tunnel toward a light. At its end, she saw her long-dead grandmother, relatives and friends. Time seemed to stop. Then an uncle led her back to her body and in- structed her to return. It felt like plunging into a pool of ice water. After she came to, Reynolds told Dr. Spetzler all that she’d seen and experienced. “You are way out of my area of expertise,” Spetzler said. And twelve years later, 2003, he still doesn’t know what to make of it.
Reality or Illusion?
Today, medical advances have allowed doctors to resuscitate people who in earlier times would have been irretrievably dead. In effect, medical intervention has pushed back the boundaries of what we call death. (See box immediately below.) Nobody anticipated the number of patients who would come back with tales like Pam Reynolds’s-tales of out-of-body experiences, travels down tunnels and encounters with angels or deceased loved ones. This phenomenon has been labeled near-death experience (NDE).
At first, virtually all doctors dismissed such reports. The conventional medical explanation was hallucination, brought on by changes in the dying brain. Yet there was a problem with this interpretation. Such hallucinations could only occur if the brain maintained some function. Once flat lined, the brain would be roughly analogous to a computer with its power source unplugged and its circuits detached. It couldn’t hallucinate; it couldn’t do anything at all.
That apparent paradox-that perceptions occur during NDEs when there is no functioning brain through which to perceive them has scientists, theologians and ordinary folks groping for answers. Such experiences should simply not happen if currently accepted scientific theories about life, death and consciousness are accurate. The NDE, some argue, should move science to make room for the possibility of a soul. Others are still skeptical. I asked British researcher Susan Blackmore .Ph.D., what she made of Pam Reynolds’s NDE. “If the case you describe is true,” Blackmore wrote back via e-mail, “the whole of science wouldneed rewriting.” Blackmore, however, assumes the account isn’t accurate. Citing nearly 30 years of research into paranormal claims, she says that in every earlier case she’s investigated, the evidence.simply wasn’t there or she found an alternative
explanation. “I can only say that my expectation is that this case did not happen like that.”
In her book about NDEs, Dying to Live, Blackmore notes that aspects of the near- death experience, including the tunnel and out-of-body experience, can be induced by strictly physiological events. During brain surgery, for instance, under local anesthesia, patients sometimes report seeing things from an “out-of-body” perspective. Others have reported similar experiences under the influence of LSD, opium, hashish and anesthetic drugs. Blackmore points out that the brain is awash in its own opiate-like substances, called endorphins, during periods of stress. She contends that evidence leads to the conclusion that out-of-body experiences and all other components of NDEs, no matter how real they seem, begin and end with a dying brain.
But cardiologist and NDE researcher Michael Sabom compared what Reynolds said she saw and heard with Dr. Spetzler’s surgical transcript and found that, during the period Reynolds experienced the tunnel, she had no brain activity at all. Like the unplugged computer mentioned before, for all intents and purposes, Pam Reynolds’s brain was dead. And a dead brain can’t misfire. Neither can it hallucinate or react to anesthesia or other drugs. “She met all clinical criteria for death,” according to Sabom. “She had no blood in her body. She had no vital signs at all. So, was this death? And, if it was death, what was this experience that she had while in this state?”
“It’s Not Me, It’s Just My Body”
Barbara Rommer, an internist in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., first encountered a patient who had had an NDE during her residency in the early 1970s. Since 1994, she has interviewed more than 600 people who reported having near-death experiences and has written a book on the topic. Though her view doesn’t fit that of many of her peers in the medical profession, the interviews convinced her that there is something that lives on after we die. “As I was interviewing these people, they wanted to speak to other people who had had the same experience,” she says. In response, she began a monthly support group for people who have had NDEs, one of the largest such groups in the world. I wanted to hear their stories, so I attended one of the support-group meetings. Dozens of ordinary-looking, mostly middle-aged men and women gathered to share experiences about what, for many of them, was a life- altering spiritual journey.
Robert Milham says his heart stopped during a heart attack: “The pain was gone. I was suspended over my body. I was looking at myself lying on the gurney and they were putting paddles on me.” After a life of selfishness, he says his brush with death made him a more giving person. Soft-spoken technology entrepreneur Ken Amick tells of an NDE after an allergic reaction during which he reports he stopped breathing and turned blue. “I could see in color. I could hear. I could feel emotions like fear, like relief.” He pauses, as if experiencing it again. “So, what’s that blue thing lying on the table? That’s me. I know that’s me. It scares me to look at it. But it’s not really me, it’s just my body.”
These folks do not offer medical documentation that they were clinically dead, but that is somewhat beside the point. It is the near-death-experience and what it means that fascinates them. Rommer says that these people find comfort in knowing they’re not alone and not crazy. Their stories may sound bizarre, but they’re not all that unusual. They echo the tales of NDEs told by people around the globe.
New Evidence, New Theories
While most medical researchers wouldn’t be caught dead uttering the word soul, some find the idea that NDEs are triggered by the failing brain to be inadequate. They speculate that NDEs may be evidence, not of an afterlife, but of something just as stunning: Consciousness does not reside solely in the brain.
In a study published in December 2001 in the British medical journal (BMJ) The
Lancet, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel recounts the NDE of a clinically dead, 44-year-old cardiac-arrest victim. He was rushed by ambulance to a hospital where doctors restarted his heart with defibrillators. A nurse removed the man’s dentures so a breathing tube could be inserted in his throat. Once stable, the man was moved to intensive care. A week later, the man saw the nurse who had removed his false teeth and recognized her-though during their only prior encounter, his condition had ranged from coma to clinical death.
“You took my dentures out of my mouth,” he told the nurse, and went on to very accurately describe other details he claimed his disembodied self had viewed. In an attempt to gauge the frequency of NDEs, van Lommel and his fellow researchers interviewed 343 others who had suffered cardiac arrest and survived. “Eighteen percent (18%) have a story of a very clear consciousness,” van Lommel says. These patients described everything from a general feeling of peace to full- fledged NDEs
A study by British researchers at Southampton General Hospital, published in the journal Resuscitation, found that 11 % had memory recall of the unconscious period. 6% of those resuscitated after cardiac arrest reported NDE5. Both van Lommel and the British researchers believe that these findings suggest con- sciousness could exist in the absence of a functioning brain. “You can compare the brain to a TV set,” says van Lommel. “The TV program is not in your TV set.”
So where is consciousness? Is it in every cell of the body?
“I think so,” says van Lommel. “We know that each day, 50 billion cells die.” He points out that this intensive cell turnover means that, eventually, almost all the cells that make up “me” or “you” are new. And yet, we don’t perceive ourselves as being
any different from what we always were. To van Lommel, it follows that “there must be a kind of communication between all our cells.” In other words, all our cells-not just brain cells, but trillions of others in muscle, skeleton, gut, skin and blood-”talk” to one another in a kind of network that keeps our experience of con- sciousness going seamlessly even as billions of cells die and billions of others are produced. If that’s so, then those cells still alive when someone is declared brain- dead may perceive events that are otherwise inexplicable.
That hypothesis may lead us away from the interpretation of NDEs as evidence of an afterlife. But it opens up fascinating horizons and a Pandora’s box of its own. What does it mean if the mind persists after the brain is dead? Should we, for instance, rethink the harvesting of organs for transplant from the “brain-dead”?
The NDE may force us to re-examine questions we thought we had the answers to: What is death? Where is consciousness? And can science find the soul?
Does the soul exist? Tell us what you believe at rd.com/communitytalk.
August, 2003, (pgs.122-128)
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